Of all the volcanoes in the northern Cascades, Mt. St. Helens is by far the easiest to climb. For starters, the most common route, Monitor Ridge on the south flank, is non-technical, eliminating the need for specialized gear or advanced mountaineering skills. At just 8,366 feet, its summit elevation post-1980 eruption places it several thousand feet lower than neighbors such as Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Rainier, essentially taking the ill effects of altitude out of the equation. However, at 10 miles round trip and with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s still a robust day hike.
After numerous trips to the base of Mt. St. Helens over the years, reaching the summit of this active volcano has long been on my to-do list. When we moved back to Washington last summer, I knew I might finally get my chance. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest limits the number of climbers to 100 per day in the summer months, and the permits sell out quickly when they go on sale in March. Sadly, I missed the initial sale this year, leaving me to obsessively check every few days for cancellations. Eventually I got lucky and spotted two permits up for grabs in late-July. A few minutes later, they were mine.
From a distance and elevation gain standpoint, the hike up Monitor Ridge is comparable to many of Colorado’s famous “Fourteeners”. One major difference: on Mt. St. Helens we would be topping out at a lower elevation than one starts most Fourteener climbs at. The other big difference would be the terrain. Most Fourteeners have a fairly distinct path a good way up the mountain and are on reasonably solid rock (my dislike of exposure and falling means I haven’t done any of the ones on rotten rock). On Mt. St. Helens, after a brief foray through the forest, the climb traverses a mixture of large lava boulders and a loose scree consisting of pumice and volcanic ash. This is a hike where a mask was on the suggested gear list before they were cool!
To the hike! As the National Weather Service had accurately predicted several days in advance, the morning of our climb dawned with some fairly dense fog at the Climbers Bivouac trailhead where we had camped the previous night. We hit the trail at 6:00 am, anticipating that it would take us 4-5 hours to reach the summit. The first two miles of trail climbs gently through a moist and somewhat unremarkable second growth forest. At timberline is where the route changes from a well-maintained trail to the aforementioned scree and boulder scramble. Wooden posts serve as guides for the remainder of the climb, but following them too closely didn’t always make for the most sensible route. In places there is a fairly obvious path, while in others (particularly in the boulder fields), you just sort of have to find what works best. Just before arriving at timberline, we began to emerge from the clouds, revealing views of Mt. Adams to the east and the extremely conical Mt. Hood to the south that we enjoyed the rest of the day. Once above the trees, our pace slowed significantly, but before too long we were several hundred feet above the cloud deck we had been immersed in a short time earlier:
We made fairly good time through the ~2 miles of boulder fields. The final mile through a deep and loose mixture of volcanic ash and pumice was definitely the most challenging part of the hike. With masks on to prevent inhaling clouds of ash kicked up by our feet (and the wind), it was somewhat analogous to hiking up a sand dune: two steps forward, one step back, repeat. After about four hours, we were standing on the crater rim.
The first view northward into the bowels of Mt. St. Helens was stunning, and definitely one of the most dramatic viewpoints I can recall. Unlike many lesser peaks in the Cascades, or most peaks in the Rockies, where you are often surrounded by other peaks of comparable elevation, Mt. St. Helens stands alone. On this volcano, you are standing on what is, by far, the highest point for dozens of miles in any direction, with only the other volcanoes exceeding you in height. Looking down onto the crater formed by the 1980 eruption, the lava domes that are slowly rebuilding the summit, and the Crater Glacier (one of the few alpine glaciers in the world that is actually advancing) was spectacular. Cornices of hard-packed, dirty snow clung to the nearly vertical slopes of the crater walls just beneath our feet, necessitating caution as we moved our way along the rim. Gentle puffs of steam were visible on portions of the lava dome, a gentle reminder that we were standing at the summit of one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The dull roar of rock and ice fall from the crater walls was nearly constant for the hour we spent taking in the view from the summit.
While the hike up had been relatively uneventful, the journey down was definitely less pleasant. Hiking poles are a must for the descent due to the steep, loose, and rocky terrain. This is definitely one of those hikes where coming down is exponentially more difficult than going up!
Compared to our experience hiking Fourteeners in Colorado, the significantly lower elevation of this hike makes a huge difference and in my opinion dramatically lowers the overall difficultly of this route. There is a big difference between inching your way up a scree slope at 13,000′ and having to stop every few steps to take in oxygen, and doing the same at 8,000′ where breathing isn’t as much of an issue. While the terrain was definitely more difficult than your average hike with similar specs, in the end we felt like the difficulty of the Monitor Ridge route was somewhat over-hyped based on some of the accounts we read in advance. We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. As far as special gear, a mask was definitely helpful for both COVID and volcanic ash purposes. Hiking poles were more or less useless on the way up, as the boulder fields often required the use of hands to navigate, but essential on the way down. Other sources recommended bringing garden gloves to protect against cuts on the sharp volcanic rocks. We bought some cheap ones and definitely found them useful. I never actually put mine on during the ascent, and made it to the summit with only one small abrasion on the back of my hand. Long pants are also a must if you don’t want your lower legs ripped to shreds by the rocks.
With Mt. St. Helens checked off, next up on the to-do list is Mt. Adams, which is also a non-technical climb at the right time of year, albeit longer. We may not get to that one this summer…perhaps our goal will be to climb one Cascade volcano per year!
The last destination on our Alaskan journey was the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. After a few days respite from the wildfire smoke in Wrangell-St. Elias, it returned with a vengeance as we headed back to Anchorage and down to the the coast:
After baking in the heat of the Alaskan interior for the last week, the marine climate of Seward was a welcome change. We even had a bit of rain for one of the few times in our entire trip.
While temperatures in Seward we’re somewhat more mild, the coastal location meant the humidity was not. On our first day in Seward, we partook in a brutal hike up to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. The hike itself was not abnormally difficult, but we were definitely not used to the combination of heat and humidity, leaving me feeling physically ill at several points during the slog up the mountain. The day had started off overcast, but as we climbed, the clouds evaporated leaving us with stellar views of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it originates. An icefield is essentially a large mass of interconnecting glaciers. The Harding Icefield is the largest — and one of only four — remaining icefields in the United States. The Exit Glacier itself has retreated more than a mile in the last 200 years, leaving trees and other vegetation to begin re-occupying it’s former valley.
The white and blue ice of the glacier made for a stellar contrast with the lush green vegetation of the alpine zone:
The wet climate of coastal Alaska results in extremely heavy snowfalls, making this one of only a handful of places in the world where glaciers flow all the way down to sea level to meet the ocean. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers exhibit complex patterns of advance and retreat that, unlike standard alpine glaciers, are not purely the result of variations in climate. While warmer temperatures or prolonged drought can certainly reduce their mass, the movement of tidewater glaciers is also subject to complex interactions between the ice, the geomtery of the ocean floor, and the depth of the water into which they flow.
On our second day in Seward, we took a water taxi into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and then kayaked to within about a quarter mile of the terminus of Holgate Glacier. Tidewater glaciers have a tendency to “calve”, in which large chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean, necessitating a safe distance. Glacier “social distancing” if you will. It is not hard to find videos on YouTube of people getting too close to calving tidewater glaciers, with quite predictable results. From our safe distance, we observed and heard several calving events in the few hours we were kayaking around the bay, but unfortunately I was not adept enough at kayaking into position quickly enough to actually capture one on camera.
Our boat ride back to Seward through Resurrection Bay also resulted in sightings of sea lions, seals, puffins, and even two pods of orcas: an exciting end to the trip!
The second stop on our Alaska trip of 2019 was Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. The largest national park in the United States, Wrangell-St. Elias spans more than 13 million acres in the wilderness of southeast Alaska. Our destination was the old mining town of Kennecott, situated deep in the park’s interior between the volcanic Wrangell Mountains and the coastal St. Elias Range.
Due to the tire issues mentioned in my last post, we opted not to take our Subaru down the 60-mile long McCarthy Road, the main access route into the park. In hindsight, we probably would have been fine, as the road was in excellent condition (at least relative to the roads we’d been used to driving in Utah. The similar-in-length Hole in the Rock Road makes the McCarthy Road look like a recently-paved superhighway). Fortunately, we were able to book a last minute van shuttle from Kenny Lake, AK to the end of the McCarthy Road. Regardless of your mode of transportation, you then walk across a footbridge spanning the glacial silt-laden Kennicott River into the town of McCarthy. (The only vehicle access to McCarthy is via a private, and very expensive, bridge a bit further downstream.) Kennecott is another 5 uphill miles by shuttle, bike, or foot:
Strangely, reaching Kennecott would have been much easier in 1919 than it was in 2019. The McCarthy “Road” is actually an old railroad grade originally built in 1909 to bring supplies in and ore out of the famous Kennecott Copper Mines. From 1911 through the late 1930s, the Kennecott mines shipped millions of tons of copper ore to Cordova on the Alaska coast via the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The town had state of the art amenities at the time, including one of the best hospitals in the territory as well as the first X-ray machine in Alaska. While the mines closed in 1938, Kennecott Copper remains one of the larger copper-producing companies in the world, perhaps best known for the massive Bingham Canyon Mine just outside of Salt Lake City.
Following the closure of the mines, Kennecott lay mostly deserted for decades before beginning to draw tourists in the 1980s. Much of the land and buildings within the town were acquired by the National Park Service in 1998 and added to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Restoration and stabilization of historic buildings in Kennecott is ongoing. Today, you can actually explore many of these buildings, including the town power plant (photo below) and the massive concentration mill (photo above), a 14-story wooden structure where copper ore was crushed and then mechanically and chemically concentrated into the high grade ore that was eventually shipped out via the railroad.
History aside, the natural landscape of Kennecott is really what makes it stand out as one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. The town is perched on the flanks of Bonanza Ridge, with rocky peaks towering more than 4,000 feet above and what remains of the Kennicott Glacier below. At first glance, it is not apparent (even to a geologist) that the mounds of rubble in the valley below ARE a glacier, but ice does lay beneath the veneer of debris. Like most of the world’s alpine glaciers, the Kennicott Glacier has retreated dramatically since the town’s heyday in the early 1900s, when its surface was level with or even above the elevation of the town. Today, you look down several hundred feet on to what remains of the glacier and the detritus it has brought with it out of the mountains. The origin of the glacier, and the dominant feature of the northern skyline, is the massive Mt. Blackburn, the fifth highest peak on the United States at 16,391 feet:
A few miles north of Kennecott, the Kennecott Glacier is joined by the Root Glacier, a somewhat more “normal” looking glacier that we spent nearly an entire day exploring. The experience was rather surreal given that the air temperature was nearly 90 degrees. Climates amenable to the formation of glaciers don’t often produce days where a swim in the frigid glacial melt water actually sounds appealing as opposed to horrifying, but that was certainly the case on this day.
As spectacular as the glacier was, there is something quite unsettling about walking around on one in a T-shirt. The signs and symptoms of a warming climate were all encompassing. We walked along deep gouges (surprisingly reminiscent of Utah slot canyons) carved into the ice by strong currents of melt water…
encountered many sublime pools filled with deep, electric blue pools of glacial melt water…
and carefully avoided deep shafts, known as moulins, that carry cascades of melt water into the internal plumbing of the glacier. In many places, we could hear the dull roar of the melt water boring tunnels through the ice beneath our feet. Glaciers like Root won’t survive many more summers with too many days like this one.
Despite the best efforts of the interpretive signs displaying historical photographs, and the park film showing the sights and sounds of the past, the sheer remoteness of Kennecott in 2019 makes it difficult to imagine the Kennecott of 1919: a busy town immersed in the deafening roar of copper mining, with a glacier not yet ravaged by climate change dominating the horizon.
Apparently a global pandemic is what it takes for me to have time to post new photos. We are thankful to be healthy and safe here in Washington and hope you are as well. Just before things started getting rough, we were excitedly welcoming the end of winter’s icy gray grip and had begun exploring the desert landscapes of central Washington.
The Pacific Northwest may not be known for its sand dunes but about one hour north of the Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland) lies the Juniper Dunes Wilderness Area, a ~7,000 acre BLM-managed anomaly in the middle of privately-owned central Washington farmland. The dune field itself extends well beyond the wilderness area, and is used heavily by off-highway vehicles. Most of the year, reaching the wilderness area on foot requires a several mile sand slog through the OHV area. Fortunately, in the spring months, the owners of an adjacent ranch allow access through their property, permitting direct and quick access to the heart of the dune field.
I first visited the Juniper Dunes on a geology field trip a decade ago and it is been on my list of places to revisit ever since. The dunes are a mix of active, shifting, barren sand, and partially stabilized dunes covered in grasses, moss, and sagebrush. The area also represents the northernmost extent of the western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis), a few of whose berries will be proudly featured in an upcoming brew from the Pyroclastic Pixels brewery. 🙂
During our visit at the beginning of March, the first vestiges of spring were appearing: namely, abundant sunshine and a handful of small wildflowers poking their heads out of the sand:
A few weeks later, and just a few days before a statewide shelter-in-place order took effect, we “socially distanced” ourselves by heading to the White Bluffs, a several mile-long stretch of chalk-colored cliffs along the banks of the Columbia River directly across from the Hanford Site. Part of the Hanford Reach National Monument, the bluffs are a mixture of fine sediment, some deposited by the ancient Columbia River itself, and some by massive floods that swept across central and eastern Washington during the last “ice age” 12,000 to 18,000 years ago. Persistent winds scour loose sand from the cliffs and associated landslides, depositing it in a large dune field along the crest of the bluff.
The aforementioned floods shaped much of the modern topography of central and eastern Washington. One of the most spectacular features formed by these floods are the broad, steep-sided ravines known as coulees. Formed when floodwaters aggressively plucked large columns out of the basaltic lava flows that blanket much of the Pacific Northwest, most of the coulees are eerily dry today and not until the 1920s did geologists unravel their true origin. Two of the most impressive and easily accessible are Frenchmen Coulee and Echo Basin, just off of I-90 between Seattle and Spokane. Crammed with rock climbers in the good weather months, in mid-January when we visited we had the coulees almost entirely to ourselves:
More photos to come from the 2019 archives! I’ve also been working on creating a more comprehensive “Galleries” page where you can view my photos sorted by location. Check it out here.
With one job ending in June and the next not starting until September, we spent most of this past summer on the road. It’s now mid-October, and I’m finally getting the chance to seriously sort through the resulting pictures.
Our last big stop of the summer was Glacier National Park in Montana and neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Glacier was one of the few remaining national parks in the west I had yet to visit, so I was excited that we were able to squeeze this trip in. Despite uncharacteristically foul weather for mid-August, a harrowing experience on the park shuttle bus, campgrounds with problem bears (and problem campers), and an unscheduled detour to an auto parts store in Cardston, Alberta, we managed to get in 60+ miles of hiking among some truly first-class scenery. Our most memorable hike was the trek to Grinnell Glacier in the northeast corner of the park. Here are a few photos from that journey:
Tucked away at the terminus of a winding gravel road in the Dixie National Forest near the Utah/Nevada border, Pine Park would probably be a beloved national monument or state park were it located literally anywhere other than Southern Utah. We’ve been fortunate to come across quite a few places that fit this profile: stunning, unique, reasonably accessible, and—here’s the big one—empty. Places like Zion National Park may be bursting at the seams, but vast swaths of Southern Utah remain deliciously deserted. On a warm and beautiful weekend in early May, we had Pine Park pretty much all to ourselves!
The main draw at Pine Park are the spectacular rock formations carved into the Tuff of Honeycomb Rock. Tuff is a deposit of consolidated volcanic ash combined with rock, mineral, and glass fragments that forms only in very explosive volcanic eruptions. Pine Park sits on the margin of some of the most voluminous and expansive deposits of tuff in the world. Collectively, the thousands of feet of tuff scattered across large swaths of Nevada and western Utah represent a time when, for lack of a better descriptor, all hell was breaking loose across what is now the Great Basin. The Tuff of Honeycomb Rock is just a hair under 12 million years old, and thus one of the youngest deposits from this intense and violent episode of volcanism.
While the backstory of the tuff is intriguing, the real allure is the wonderland of creamy white spires, domes, and hoodoos emerging from the otherwise nondescript juniper, ponderosa, and piñon pine forest. Weathering and erosion have sculpted a masterpiece at Pine Park. In many places, the architecture almost resembles Bryce Canyon, albeit whitewashed, and with no maintained trails (several Forest Service trails wind through this area, according to the official map, but we had difficulty following them for any more than a hundred yards past the trailhead) the many pockets of eroded tuff are truly a blast to explore.
The tall, stately Ponderosas and a small stream give Pine Park a high-altitude feel, but in reality it sits at just 5700 feet above sea level, plenty low and warm enough for a plethora of wildflowers to be in full bloom during our visit:
The 47 mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road slices through some of the most otherworldly terrain in Southern Utah, connecting Highway 89 in the south with the Bryce Canyon region in the north. Mostly unpaved, some GPS devices have been known to lead travelers down this road in the name of a shortcut to Bryce Canyon National Park. When dry, Cottonwood Canyon makes for a wonderful scenic drive and is indeed a shortcut. But in the days following rain or snow, the layer of clay-rich shale the road follows for most of its length turns into a veritable morass, and renders the road impassible regardless of how many-wheel drive your vehicle might possess. Coming from the south, the road initially follows the broad valley of the Paria River drainage, before leaving the river behind and heading up the narrower valley of Cottonwood Creek. This portion of the road passes through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; other sections used to as well before the monument experienced its recent “downsizing.”
We recently took a three-night camping trip to explore Cottonwood Canyon and some nearby areas. Our first stop was Yellow Rock, near the south end of the road about 13 miles from Hwy 89. Yellow Rock is a massive dome of Navajo Sandstone, easily visible from the road as is rises high above the jumble of rock layers alongside Cottonwood Creek. While the hike to its summit is not long, getting there requires a moderately-difficult scramble up a hidden rocky chute littered with loose boulders. Hiking poles/sticks highly recommended. After scrambling to the base of the rock, the real fun begins. After a few years living in Southern Utah, it is natural to assume that you’ve seen every color, pattern, and texture of sandstone that can possibly exist, but then Yellow Rock comes along and proves you wrong:
While the abundant cottonwood trees lining the canyon bottom were still quite leafless, even in early April other signs of spring were beginning to show in this high desert. Traversing across Yellow Rock, we encountered many pockets of Desert Paintbrush, Anderson’s Buttercup, and Manzanita in sandy stream bottoms or in crevices in the sandstone, already in full bloom:
On our final night, we camped near the north end of the road, not far from Kodachrome Basin State Park, where we were treated to a spectacular sunset and even more stunning dark, moonless night skies:
No Southern Utah camping trip would be complete without a saunter through a slot canyon, so on the way home in the morning, we made a quick detour to Willis Creek Canyon. At the beginning of our trip, we had briefly probed the famous Buckskin Gulch, just south of Cottonwood Canyon in Arizona, but were quickly turned back by waist-deep mud & debris pools that were emanating quite possibly the most foul stench to ever besmirch this Earth. In contrast, Willis Creek Canyon is a rare bird in Southern Utah; a beautifully sculpted slot with no technical obstacles to rappel over, and no putrid cesspools to wade through. Instead, a small babbling brook winds through the sandstone narrows, seemingly oblivious to its own high-quality handiwork:
Gold Butte is one of our nation’s newest National Monuments, tucked away into a small corner of Southern Nevada, northeast of Lake Mead and snuggled up along the Arizona border. Unfortunately, Gold Butte was recently recommended for a “boundary reduction.” After spending a few days exploring the areas, I can confidently say that this is a truly stunning Mojave Desert landscape, home to amazing views, endangered wildlife, unique geology, and priceless relics of the past. If nothing else, I hope these photos demonstrate that this area is worthy of more protection, not less.
Limestone is a unique character is the rock world. There are only a handful of rocks that can be dissolved in water, and limestone is by far the most common of that group (other members include salt and gypsum). Most limestones are composed of the skeletal remains of deceased marine organisms (a handful are formed by entirely inorganic processes), so their presence generally indicates that an area was home to a warm, shallow sea at some time in the past. Fossils of coral, clams, snails, and other water-loving critters are often abundant in limestone, and in some ways, a chunk of marine limestone IS one gigantic fossil!
The aforementioned critters make their shells out of calcium carbonate, which is soluble in slightly acidic water. Most water on Earth’s surface is slightly acidic (due to interactions with carbon dioxide in our atmosphere) so interesting things can happen when water and limestone interact…especially if you give them lots of time! In particular, groundwater is capable of dissolving huge voids in limestone bedrock over long periods of time, forming features such as sinkholes and caverns.
Limestone is an abundant rock in our neck of the woods, especially in the mountain ranges astride the Utah/Nevada border in the Great Basin. Throughout much of the Paleozoic Era (541 to 252 million years ago), this region was covered by a series of vast, warm, shallows seas, much like the one that now draws millions to the Bahamas every year.
A great place to see limestone in action is the area around Great Basin National Park. Tucked away in extreme east-central Nevada, Great Basin is one of my favorite national parks, far removed from the hoards that descend annually on many of the west’s more well-known attractions. You have to make an effort to get here and at first glance, the Snake Range of Great Basin NP looks pretty much like any other mountain island rising up out of the Basin & Range. Upon closer inspection, it’s actually home to a stunningly diverse array of landscapes: The 2nd highest peak in Nevada (Wheeler Peak at 13,065 feet), some of the world’s oldest trees, and arguably the darkest night skies in the Lower 48 all reside here.
But limestone is ultimately the reason a national park exists in this corner of Nevada. A small portion of the area was originally set aside as a national monument in 1922 to protect Lehman Caves, a stunning cavern eaten into the 500 million year old Pole Canyon Limestone. Only in 1986 was the monument enlarged into a National Park encompassing both the caves and the surrounding mountain landscape.
While small in size, Lehman Caves is exquisitely decorated with a wide variety of speleothems (cave formations). Stalactites, stalagmites, shields, draperies, cave bacon, cave popcorn, soda straws, and helectites surround you at every turn as you wander through the cave. Photos show details not immediately visible to the human eye in the dimly lit cave, revealing an underground world that looks more like a well manicured sci-fi movie set than a natural place sculpted by nothing more than the water, limestone, and time.
Back on the surface, no trip to Great Basin NP is complete without a hike to admire some of the oldest living things on the planet: the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva). Curiously, even these trees have an intimate relationship with the limestone that is so common here. Most of the bristlecone pine groves throughout the Great Basin are found growing on soils derived from limestone or dolomite (a limestone relative). For some reason, the bristlecones seem to prefer this rock type, perhaps because many other species do not, thus minimizing competition. The easily accessible grove on the flanks of Wheeler Peak (pictured below) is perhaps the most notable exception. Here the trees grow not in limestone, but among hard quartzite boulders deposited by old glaciers.
About an hour east of Great Basin, slightly younger (~490 million years) limestone in the House Range forms another unique feature: Notch Peak. At just 9,658 feet, Notch Peak doesn’t measure up in altitude with many other summits in the region. It’s claim to fame is its 2,200 foot sheer northwest face, one of the tallest cliffs in North America. Where exactly it ranks on that list depends on your definition of “cliff,” but there seems to be little debate that it is the tallest limestone cliff on the North American continent. The peak is striking, especially when viewed from the west, where the full magnitude of its 4,000+ foot rise from the Tule Valley below is apparent.
We spent an enjoyable evening camping in the shadow of Notch Peak and had hoped to hike to the summit the next day via Sawtooth Canyon on the east side, but unfortunately car issues derailed that plan.
The least visited and most isolated of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef hosts what is perhaps the quintessential Utah landscape. It is as if someone took small portions of the other four parks and mashed them into one; here you can find a plethora of arches and natural bridges, deep snake-like canyons, soaring Navajo and Wingate Sandstone cliffs, and even a few hoodoos thrown in for good measure.
The skinny sixty mile long park was originally established as a national monument in 1937, but became a national park in 1971. The odd shape stems from the inherent nature of the feature it protects: the Waterpocket Fold, a 100+ mile-long kink in the Earth’s crust known as a monocline. Creeks and rivers have dissected the fold over millions of years to reveal what is quite possibly the most colorful and diverse array of rock layers in Utah.
Capitol Reef is far from just about everywhere (which made the flat tire we experienced on the way that much more annoying). To the east and south lie the last major mountain range and river, respectively, to be mapped and added to the map of the lower 48 states. Not until the 1960s did a paved highway cross the Waterpocket Fold through Capitol Reef. In the northern part of the park, the Fremont River slices a narrow canyon through the Waterpocket Fold, its water creating one of the few habitable areas in the entire region. Petrogylphs attest to the importance of this year-round water source to ancient inhabitants. In 1880, Mormon settlers established the settlement of Fruita along the banks of the Fremont. The remains of this historic farming community and the abundant, lush green orchards and fields seem out of place in the otherwise stark central Utah canyonlands but add to the allure of the park.
Here are some of the sights from our quick trip to Capitol Reef this past weekend:
For the most part, the landscape at Capitol Reef is quite open, allowing vast views and superb light at sunset:
Not far from the park campground and visitor center are the remnants of an old trail leading up a sandy wash, then up a short but steep talus slope before arriving at a hidden basin containing hoodoos and other strange rock formations. Unfortunately it was just about noon and the light was about as direct and harsh as possible, but it was cool to explore an area off-the-beaten path yet still in sight of the tour buses below:
This past weekend we made our first foray into the interior of the Colorado Plateau since moving to Utah. Our destination was Coyote Gulch, a well-known tributary of the Escalante River that straddles the boundary of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recereation Area. Below are some photos from the trip:
As a final note, Coyote Gulch has, for good reason, become an extremely popular destination over the years. We actually had some second thoughts about going after reading guidebooks that implored us not to visit on a holiday weekend in the spring (it was Easter) and after the BLM employee who issued our permit told us we would be “joining a party.” In the end, we found the over-crowding hype to be somewhat overblown. While there were more folks down there than you might expect to find in such a remote location, it could hardly be called a party. We camped in the most popular half-mile section of the gulch and couldn’t see anyone else from our site along the banks of the creek. We met just a handful of other groups on our hikes in and out of the gulch, and only occasionally encountered other people on our all-day hike down to the Escalante River and back. If you are seeking complete and total solitude or isolation, this is probably not the place for you. But we didn’t feel like the crowds detracted from the experience much if at all.
The increase in visitation to Coyote Gulch certainly creates challenges for the future. Hikers are now required to carry out all human waste, which seems to be a step in the right direction. However challenging keeping the gulch in pristine condition might be, I tend to believe that this situation is better, in the long-term at least, than the alternative. Coyote Gulch has been described as one of the last remaining echos of Glen Canyon, a small remnant of the scenic wonders that were submerged after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the filling of Lake Powell in the 1960s. Glen Canyon was lost ultimately because it was “the place no one knew.” The same cannot be said of Coyote Gulch. It is one of those places where the term “loved to death” gets thrown around, but ultimately we only fight to protect places that we love and value and it is hard to truly appreciate a place like Coyote Gulch solely through pictures. Hopefully the more people that go to Coyote Gulch and experience its majesty first-hand, the more people there will be to stand-up for it against future threats that are assuredly to come.
One of the great things about living in Southern Utah is the abundance of different climates within a small geographic area. When temperatures rise into the 90s and 100s in the low-elevation valleys, we can be in cool alpine meadows at 10,500′ in less than an hour. When snow, slush, and mud cover the trails in winter, vast portions of the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts are within a day’s drive. One of these desert areas is Valley of Fire State Park in southern Nevada, not far from I-15 between St. George and Las Vegas.
Perhaps not surprisingly, upon arrival at Valley of Fire one is greeted with an array of whimsically sculpted red rock formations. Now red rocks are hardly unique in this part of the country, and the crimson cliffs here are no more notable than those found anywhere else in Utah or Arizona. But head into the interior of the park and you soon realize the allure of the Valley of Fire. After cresting the red cliffs, the hues begin to multiply exponentially and before long you are surrounded by just about every color of sandstone imaginable.
To put it bluntly, the colors at Valley of Fire are simply ridiculous…and attributable to its unique geologic location. The rocks here are mostly equivalent to those found throughout southwestern Utah and the Colorado Plateau. The Aztec Sandstone, the dominant rock unit exposed in the park, is the equivalent of the Navajo Sandstone that makes up the cliffs of Zion National Park. Geologists just assign it a different name when it appears in Nevada and the Great Basin. Perhaps the distinct name is appropriate though, given that the sandstone seems to take on a life of its own here.
Valley of Fire State Park lies within the Basin and Range province, a vast region covering Nevada and portions of half a dozen other western states where the Earth’s crust is being slowly but violently stretched apart. As the writer John McPhee once noted, so much stretching has occurred here that 20 million years ago, Salt Lake City and Reno would have been more than 60 miles closer together. Faults are abundant in this land, and fluids associated with some of these faults have at various times leached iron compounds from the originally all-red sandstone, causing some layers to become bright white, and re-deposited them in other layers, leading to the wide variety of colors.
Some of the most impressive colors are found just to the west of the “Fire Wave” feature near the northern terminus of the park’s scenic drive:
While there are numerous hiking trails, there is also lots of off-trail terrain to explore. Some of the most spectacular scenery can be found by parking at one of the numerous pull offs and just wandering out into the rock wonderland. One particular geologic feature of note is what are known as “shear-enhanced compaction bands,” thin brittle fins of rock that rise almost vertically out of the ground and often run continuously for dozens to hundreds of yards. At first glance, these features look like mineral veins, but upon closer examination they are composed of the same material as the surrounding sandstone, but are obviously slightly harder than the host rock. In many places there are two perpendicular sets of the bands, forming a checkerboard like pattern superimposed on the sandstone.
The bands are the result not of stretching, but of compressional forces that predate the formation of the Basin and Range. Stresses associated with an earlier mountain building episode (known as the Sevier orogeny) created these funky bands by essentially “squeezing” together (and even breaking) the sand grains that make up the rock, eliminating much of the empty space between the grains and forming a miniature layer of tougher, harder, and more compact sandstone that is slightly more resistant to weathering and erosion. As a result, the bands tend to just out from the surrounding slickrock by several inches, and even several feet in some locations. For such a seemingly obscure feature, many papers have been written about these compaction bands (and similar ones in a few other locations in the region). However my understanding of the structural processes behind their formation is limited and the most recent articles about them appear to be behind a paywall. If anyone reading this has more insight into these things, I would love to hear from you.
As mentioned before, these bands are quite thin, in most less than a centimeter thick and thus, sadly, quite brittle. They are easily broken by an errant boot step so if you find yourself among them, tread carefully so that future visitors will be able to experience this unique and colorful landscape.
Next time you find yourself in extreme eastern Nevada with time to spare, I highly recommend checking out Cathedral Gorge State Park. This gem lies tucked away on the floor of Meadow Valley, about halfway between Las Vegas and Great Basin National Park, not far from the bustling hub of Panaca, Nevada. In other words, for a place fully accessible by paved roads, Cathedral Gorge is about as off-the-beaten path as you’re going to get.
Despite its under-the-radar status, Cathedral Gorge was established all the way back in 1935, and was one of Nevada’s four original state parks (along with the more well-known Valley of Fire north of Las Vegas). The highlight here is a shallow valley excavated out of a layer of soft lake sediments by Meadow Valley Wash and numerous small tributary streams. The sediment was originally deposited in a freshwater lake that called Meadow Valley home during wetter times in the Pliocene epoch (~2.5-5 million years ago). This area has been the epicenter for some pretty extensive volcanic activity over the past few dozen million years, so the sediment that accumulated in the lake was rich in volcanic ash.
Today, with the lake gone, the exposed sediment is so soft that it erodes extremely rapidly. Few plants can gain a foothold in earth that is crumbling so rapidly, so the water (and to a lesser extent, wind) have created a intricate landscape of badlands along the margin of the valley. The scenery is bizarre and not all that unlike what you might find in the famous badlands of South Dakota and the Great Plains. It definitely feels out of place in the sagebrush expanses of the Great Basin. While Cathedral Gorge bakes in the summertime, during our visit it was cold, windy, and virtually empty. We saw not another soul on a four mile loop hike around the perimeter of the valley.
While the loop hike around the valley was enjoyable (if a bit windy), we didn’t stumble upon the highlight of our visit until we started poking around the rock formations adjacent to the trailhead parking lot. In a matter of minutes, we found ourselves exploring a landform that I still don’t have the right words to describe.
At the edge of the valley, runoff has carved a series of deep, extremely narrow, and almost perfectly vertical crevices into the soft sediments. The park calls them “caves” but the words cave, crevice, gully, crevasse, gorge, and ravine all fail to accurately capture their bizarre and truly unique nature. Perhaps the best way to describe them is as “slot canyons of mud.”
They evoke the sandstone slot canyons of Utah in the sense that they were so narrow that in many spots only a tiny sliver of blue sky could be seen overhead. Unlike most slot canyons though, whose delicate curves are clearly the result of flowing water, the walls here were angular and almost perfectly vertical. It was as if someone had carved huge blocks out of the mud with a chainsaw and then splattered the walks with mud to cover their tracks. Each little mud slot terminated abruptly in a roughly circular chamber whose walls were lined with linear grooves etched into the mud, extending all the way up to the rim. These chambers were clearly the work of waterfalls that spill into the canyons with each heavy rain.
As fragile and precarious as the mud walls looked, there were surprisingly few signs of catastrophic collapse. We explored about a half dozen of these little canyons, all of which were located right along the main road into the park. There were surely more that we missed, good enough reason to make the drive back to Meadow Valley another day.
Not far from the increasingly overrun splendors of Bryce and Zion is a canyon frequently overlooked when discussing the many attractions of Southern Utah. The stunning Ashdown Gorge lies just a few miles from Cedar City off of Highway 14, yet I’ve seen a grand total of three other people on a pair of weekend hikes up the gorge this summer & fall. The solitude likely stems from the fact that there is no marked trail or trailhead for this hike; Ashdown Creek is the trail for a spectacular jaunt up the canyon. One must also scramble down the steep toe of an active landslide strewn with old vehicles, guardrail fragments, and asphalt chunks just to reach the creek bed from the highway. Once this has been accomplished though, it is fairly easily walking for many miles up the gorge as the water in the creek is typically only ankle deep except during spring snow melt and after heavy rains.
Ashdown Gorge has a very different character than many canyons in Southern Utah, starting with the color of its walls. Not red or pink – the famous layers of Zion and Moab are well below the surface here – but rather varied shades of grey, tan, and yellow. The majority of the gorge is carved into the Cretaceous Straight Cliffs Formation, an impressive unit formed when southwestern Utah was a swampy coastal plain trapped between a disintegrating mountain range to the west and the shallow Cretaceous Interior Seaway to the east. Periodic but short lived rises in sea level are marked by occasional beds that contain almost nothing but fossilized oysters and other marine organisms.
Ashdown Gorge is not quite a slot canyon, although it tries in places. Despite this, the walls for much of its length are several hundred feet high and there are many locations where you would NOT want to find yourself during a flash flood, so take a close look at the weather forecast before attempting to explore the gorge! Unlike the relatively hard sandstone that forms most of Utah’s famous slot canyons, the Straight Cliffs Formation is rather soft and crumbly. The creek has taken advantage of this by eroding laterally in many places. The result of this erosion is perhaps most spectacular around the outside edges of the many tight meanders of Ashdown Creek. Here the creek has carved into soft layers near the canyon bottom, undercutting harder layers of sandstone near the rim, creating vast alcoves that completely cover the creek bed.
While walking along the creek, one thing that is striking is the color of the boulders upon which you walk. Not grey and tan like the canyon walls, but rather varying shades of orange, pink, and red. This is because Ashdown Creek drains the vast amphitheater of Cedar Breaks National Monument upstream to the east. The soft limestones and siltstones of Cedar Breaks are easily eroded, and Ashdown Creek can turn bright orange during even minor rains.
Another highlight of a hike up Ashdown Gorge is a good view of Flanigan Arch, an impressive span (reputable estimates of its length are hard to find, but most seem to say ~60 feet) that is difficult to access or even see from any other location.
In addition to the lack of crowds, the high elevation of Ashdown Gorge (7000-8000′) makes it a wonderful day hike (or potential overnight trip) for escaping the heat in summer (just watch for flash floods…) Ponderosa Pine, spruce, and fir are the most commonly seen large trees in the gorge which has a very “mountainous” feel to it. When we hiked it in late October, the temperatures were actually getting a little too cool to fully enjoy the numerous required stream crossings. In June when it was 80 degrees, the creek crossings were heaven!
A few weekends back I led my semester-ly geology field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Each time I end up finding new gems that I had previously overlooked, such as the spectacular stream meanders along the Fall River pictured above. One good flood and the stream will erode through the narrow strip of land separating the two meanders, leaving the bend in the middle of the photo high and dry. Places like this are a great opportunity for students to see in action a geologic process that every introductory geology instructor teaches in the classroom.
Despite many areas of the park still being covered in umpteen feet of snow, wildflowers are beginning to appear in the lower elevations around Estes Park:
The biggest cause for excitement actually occurred after the field trip was over. I had intended to stick around in the park for a longer hike after setting the students free, but I quickly realized I had left my filled camelback on the kitchen counter. Lacking any sort of water carrying device, not wanting to shell out the cash to buy one, nor desiring to try to fashion one out of ungulate intestines, that plan was foiled. In lieu of a hike I headed for a short stroll around Lily Lake to try to get some pictures of the incoming storm enveloping Longs Peak.
While snapping the above photo, I was startled by what sounded like a cannonball being dropped into the lake behind behind me. My initial suspicion of hooligans launching boulders into the lake was discredited when I turned around and saw no one within half a mile. I made my way to the edge of the lake and remained motionless; after a few moments, this little guy appeared:
Noticing the presence of a nearby mass of chewed up sticks (above), I hastily assumed I was in the presence of a beaver. In short time, a second critter appeared and the pair began to tussle, albeit sadly behind a willow bush from my point of view. It soon became clear that these animals were more agile and less chunky and rotund than your typical beaver. Not being able to see them clearly with the naked eye, my next guess was river otter, which persisted until I got home and took a closer look at the pictures below. Otters would have a tough time leading their carnivorous lifestyles with only those gigantic incisors to work with. I was out of ideas (this is why I lead geology field trips, not wildlife watching trips…) , so I was forced to the internet where I learned that I had just seen my first muskrat.
Finally, on the way home, I made a quick stop at a rock shop in Estes Park that I’ve driven past dozens of times. I quickly discovered that knowledge of basic geological principles is not a prerequisite for owning a rock shop when I found a large bin of black limestone labeled:
Southern Utah is a mecca for tourists from around the world, and most of that blame can be placed on the shoulders of a single layer of rock: the Navajo Sandstone. Quite possibly one of the most famous geological formations in the world, the Navajo Sandstone is responsible for the soaring cliffs of Zion National Park, the monoclines of Capital Reef, and the undulating, swirling, entrancing patterns of the The Wave in Arizona and Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah. The Navajo Sandstone also rears its beautiful head in lesser known gems, such as Snow Canyon State Park just a few minutes northwest of St. George, Utah.
Snow Canyon is actually several canyons in one, all cut into the Navajo Sandstone. The original Snow Canyon existed up until about one million years ago, when it was rudely filled in by a series of basaltic lava flows originating from the northeast. Water, being the couch potato that it is, doesn’t like to carve through hard volcanic rock, so the stream that had excavated Snow Canyon promptly jumped ship to find some more Navajo Sandstone, and thus began establishing a new canyon slightly to the west. The stream went about its business carving Snow Canyon #2 until about 10,000-20,000 years ago, when it was thwarted by yet another lava flow. True to history, the stream changed course a second time, and is now busily carving Snow Canyon #3 even further to the west. The result is a multi-tiered canyon, with the remnants of the canyon-filling lava flows forming the tread of each step.
The Navajo Sandstone itself is a colossal formation, several thousand feet thick in places, representing the lithified remains of a large Jurassic sand dune sea (known as an erg), likely analogous to the modern day Sahara desert. If you think Southern Utah is hot and dry today, imagine being there 180 million years ago when the climate was hot and hyper-arid. Add some dinosaurs and you’ve got yourself a fun day in the Jurassic desert. Over time, mineral-rich fluids percolated through the sand, depositing mineral cement in between the sand grains, binding them together into stone. The Navajo Sandstone is known for its spectacular aeolian (fancy geology-speak for “wind-blown”) cross-bedding, inclined layers that form when winds blow sand up the shallow face of a dune, only to have it tumble down the steep slip face on the other side.
A especially peculiar property of the Navajo Sandstone is the presence of occasional beds containing abundant spherical concretions of sand held together by the iron oxide minerals goethite and hematite (see photo at top of page). Commonly known as “moqui marbles,” these small spherules are slightly harder than the rest of the sandstone, so as the rock weathers away, the concretions are left behind to accumulate in large quantities on the surface of the rock. Moqui marbles can be found in many locations throughout Utah. And on Mars. The discovery of nearly identical hematite concretions by the Opportunity rover was some of the first definitive evidence that liquid water once flowed on the red planet, since the formation of the marbles requires groundwater to dissolve, and then re-precipitate iron minerals in the subsurface. If you are intrigued by my incredibly vague and simplistic description, you can find much, much more on the moqui marbles and their mode of formation here. If not, you are hereby forgiven and are welcome to enjoy the final photo without guilt:
No tour of Death Valley would be complete without a peek into the myriad of mysterious canyons that slice abruptly into the mountain ranges surrounding the valley. When rain does bless Death Valley, it often arrives quickly and in large quantities, which can quickly turn a storm from a blessing into a nightmare. With little soil and few plants to soak up the water, most precipitation ends up rapidly draining into creeks and streams. Canyons that are bone dry 99% of the year can almost instantaneously find themselves channeling deadly flash floods, mudflows, and debris flows. Each time this happens, the canyons get slightly deeper (and the mountains slightly smaller) as the water picks up and transports bits of rock down to the valley floor where it dumps them in large piles known as alluvial fans. If the mountains weren’t continually being uplifted by tectonic forces (which most of the ranges in Death Valley are), this process would quickly erase the mountains from the landscape.
In October 2015 (just a few months before our visit), portions of Death Valley received several inches of rain in just a few hours, a nearly unprecedented storm for such a dry environment. Many roads were damaged or wiped out completely by floods and debris flows and portions of the park remained closed even several months later.
One of the most interesting canyons in Death Valley is Gower Gulch, located just south of Furnace Creek. Until recently, Gower Gulch was a small, run-of-the-mill canyon carved into the soft, buff-colored badlands of the Furnace Creek Formation. Things took a dramatic turn in the 1940s when the waters of the nearby (and much larger) Furnace Creek Wash were deliberately diverted into Gower Gulch in an attempt to prevent them from flooding populated areas downstream. With the drainage area of Gower Gulch enlarged by over 16,000%, periodic floods began to incise Gower Gulch at an alarming rate. The Gulch has deepened by more than 20 feet in just the last several decades, an erosion rate nearly unheard of in the geological world. The rapid erosion rate has caused some unintended consequences to overlooks, roads, and other park infrastructure but has simultaneously provided geologists with a fascinating window into what happens when you make a stream too big for its own britches.
Gower Gulch had experience once of these erosive floods just a few months prior to our visit. The lower walls of the canyon were still coated in a thin layer of tan mud left behind by the October 2015 floods. In many cases, the mud line was 10-15 feet high. Little imagination was needed to realize that Gower Gulch would be a terrifying place to be during such an event!
An hour north of Gower Gulch is Mosaic Canyon. Cut into the Panamint Mountains the rise to the west of Death Valley, Mosaic Canyon also experiences mudflows and debris flows during intense rains. The bedrock of the canyon is ancient dolomites, limestones, and marbles; in many places, these rocks have been polished to a shine by floodwaters roaring through the canyon.
The highlight and namesake of the canyon though are the spectacular deposits of breccia (a sedimentary rock made of coarse-grained, angular rock chunks cemented together by a finer-grained matrix) that have been pasted onto the canyon walls by repeated debris flows. The high carbonate content of the rocks allows percolating water to quickly cement the debris flow deposits together into a solid layer that can adhere to the canyon walls. The fragments of rock within the breccia are a representative sample of those that comprise the Panamint Mountains, and thus vary widely in color making the breccia appear like a complex fresco created by a powerful force of nature.
One can hike up Mosaic Canyon (some moderate scrambling required) for about a mile and a half, admiring the rock formations, before coming to a ~50 high cliff (a waterfall during wet periods) that inhibits further upstream travel. Hiking up Mosaic Canyon is truly spectacular, each bend reveals a new assortment of geological treasures, only some of which are pictured here.
Wind gets far more credit for shaping the surface of the Earth than it should. Contrary to popular belief, wind is a relatively poor sculptor of landscapes, especially when compared to water in its many forms.
Remove water from the equation though, and the influence of wind becomes magnified. The planet Mars is a great example. Dry for billions of years, with no streams or ocean waves to shape its landscape, Mars has become a barren land of sand dunes and sandblasted rocks.
If you want to experience a Mars-like landscape without the inconvenience of a long flight, Death Valley just might be your best bet. Here, water is so sparse that the effects of wind are more prominent and striking than anywhere I’ve ever visited.
My personal favorite wind-driven geologic phenomenon are what are geologists call “ventifacts.” Ventifacts are rocks (usually boulder-sized) that have essentially been sandblasted by wind-blown sand particles for extended periods of time. Ventifacts are consequently pockmarked with an array of pits, grooves, gouges, striations, and etchings that betray their uncomfortable past. Near Badwater in southern Death Valley, a low, linear ridge covered in boulders of dark black volcanic rock juts out into the valley, intercepting the strong winds that often blow along the valley’s length. Nearly every rock on this ridge shows these telltale signs of sandblasting. Combined with the lack of vegetation, photos from here resemble many of those taken by the Mars rovers more than just about anywhere else on Earth.
Larger ventifacts like the one below often take on an exceptionally strange shape. This is because wind (even very strong wind) is incapable of picking up anything bigger than a large grain of sand, and even then it can’t lift it more than a few feet off the ground. The result is that the bottom two or three feet of the bounder gets abraded away, while the top remains relatively intact, leading to the classic “hourglass” shape of large ventifacts.
All of the sand blown along the valley has to go somewhere. In several locations around Death Valley National Park, mountain ranges act as obstacles to wind, and where the wind stops or slows, the sand is deposited in large dune fields.
Death Valley has not shortage of dunes but the most accessible are the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Unfortunately, the proximity of these dunes to paved highways means that they are also one of the most visited locations in the park. Upon arrival at the dunes a bit before sunset, we were immediately greeted by the high-pitched insectile buzz of an amateur drone (currently prohibited in national parks) hovering overhead. Fortunately, such devices have a limited range and we were soon free of the annoyance. Even though the Sun was getting low, our plan was to stay awhile. Before long, the Sun set, the stars came out and we had the dunes almost entirely to ourselves as the nearly full Moon illuminated our path:
One unique feature of the these dunes is the presence of large patches of dried & cracked mud between the dune crests. Having been to dozens of different sand dunes, seeing anything other than sand (and the occasional hardy bush) in a field of sand dunes in a strange sight. The origin of the mud is connected to the fact that the dunes lie nestled against the base of the Panamint Mountains. Periodically, mudflows and debris flows burst forth from the canyons at the foot of these mountains, migrating their way into the low spots between the dunes. The mud dries quickly in the arid climate, forming the large mudcracks. The sand dunes, constantly in a state of motion, eventually bury most of the mudflow deposits, leaving only portions peeking through.
Coming up in part three, we leave the valley behind and explore the myriad of canyons cut into the mountains ringing Death Valley. Then it’s on to Joshua Tree!
Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest (and hottest) point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, has long been on my list of places to visit in person. In part because of the superlative involved but also because Death Valley on the whole is a geological Mecca of sorts. A few weeks ago, I finally got to make my pilgrimage, but not without a few surprises. First of all, I never expected to be wearing four layers (including thermal underwear) and a winter hat when taking my picture next to the famous Badwater sign. I also didn’t expect visiting Badwater to be one of the least interesting things that I saw in Death Valley. This is not a knock against Badwater, but rather a testament to the fact that even after visiting 32 of the 59 national parks in the US, I can honestly say that Death Valley was one of the most spectacular and diverse I have been fortunate enough to spend time in.
With a week off before Christmas, we were looking for someplace “warm” to camp. We had originally planned to head to southern New Mexico and Texas to check out the Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains area. However, in the days leading up to our departure, the forecast lows plunged into the low 20s. It wouldn’t kill us, but we figured we could do better. Heading to Death Valley turned out to be a good audible as the lows were only in the low to mid 40s, quite pleasant by December standards. Oddly enough it was a bad experience during the depths of winter in 1849-50 that gave Death Valley its foreboding name. One member of a lost and ragged group of prospectors is said to have quipped “goodbye Death Valley” as they finally departed the basin that had given them such torment. Today though, armed with an automobile and several large water jugs, winter is an ideal time to take in the spectacular sights of Death Valley. After several days in the park, saying “goodbye” was the last thing I wanted to do.
The first thing to know about Death Valley: it’s big. Nearly 3,000 square miles big. The national park that protects it and the surrounding mountains covers upwards of 3.3 million acres—about the size of Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks combined—making it the largest national park in the U.S. outside of Alaska. It takes awhile to get around and the character of the valley varies wildly along its 100+ mile length. All parts of the valley share some common characteristics though: heat (average July high: 116.5 F), aridity (2.3 inches in a good year), and low elevation (over 500 square miles of the valley lie below sea level).
Death Valley has been low for a long time but the dryness is a comparatively recent development. During the last glacial maximum (geologist-speak for “ice age”) 12,000-30,000 years ago, the surrounding mountains received so much precipitation that Death Valley turned into an 100 mile-long lake known as Lake Manly. Since Death Valley is bordered on all sides by mountains, streams draining out of the mountains had no easy way out. Over time, as the climate dried and the lake evaporated, thick layers of salt were deposited on the valley bottom. This is why most of the valley floor appears white. With the encouragement of the rangers, I tasted it and can confirm that it is indeed salt!
In many locations (in particular a spot known as “Devil’s Golf Course”), the salt grows into some fantastical yet potentially dangerous formations. The valley here is a wonderland of 1-2 foot high irregular mounds of salt & mud, all encrusted with razor sharp blades and daggers made of salt crystals (see photos below). While the salt is relatively brittle, falls are still to be avoided at all cost. Walking around Devil’s Golf Course reminded me of the time I completed shredded a brand new pair of leather hiking boots in one week of doing geology field work on fresh, sharp a’a lava flows in Hawaii. The only difference was the a fall here would quite literally rub salt in your wound, not a pleasant thought at all.
Near Badwater Basin are some spectacular and very colorful badlands sculpted out of young, soft, clay-rich sedimentary rocks. We arrived in Death Valley our first day just in time to catch sunset over the badlands (photo at top of page) and then hiked through them the next day after we started to desiccate from walking around on the salt flats too much.
If salt daggers, ancient lakes, and badlands aren’t enough excitement for one day, you’ll be happy to know that the northern end of Death Valley has experienced some volcanic activity within the past few thousand years. In a stark contrast to the bleak white salt flats of the southern valley, the valley landscape here is shrouded in dark black cinders and volcanic cones. The centerpiece is a large hole known as Ubehebe Crater, a type of volcanic feature known as a “maar.” Maars are the result of “phreatomagmatic eruptions” (your new scrabble word for the day; it will just take you a few turns and some incredibly good luck to be able to play it…), which occur when magma beneath the Earth’s surface comes into contact with groundwater. The heat from the magma causes the groundwater to flash into steam, creating a violent explosion, and, as so often happens with violent explosions, a large hole in the ground. The red and white sedimentary rocks that existed prior to the eruption still appear beneath the volcanic cinders in places creating a beautiful palette of colors.
More photos of sand dunes, mountain canyons, and the spectacular geology of Death Valley to come!
And now for a few more photos from before winter roared back into Colorado this past week:
Earlier this winter we took a day trip up Poudre Canyon, about a half hour northwest of Fort Collins. One of the more popular trails here is a ~5.5 mile loop combining the Greyrock Trail and the Greyrock Meadows Trail. A short spur trail heads up to the summit of Greyrock Mountain (pictured above) near the apex of the loop but we opted to pass on this route due to icy conditions and dwindling daylight. Despite ranging in elevation from 5,500-7,000 feet, the trail was surprisingly snow free, save for the lower sections that were well-shaded by the canyon walls.
The highlight of the hike is most certainly the spectacular granitic rock formations surrounding Greyrock Mountain. I say granitic because the rock here is actually not granite but what geologists call quartz monzonite; essentially granite with slightly less quartz and slightly more feldspar (hence the pinkish color). A seemingly trivial difference perhaps but an important one to geologists trying to unravel the history of the rocks. The steep, smooth faces of Greyrock Mountain wouldn’t look out of place amongst the granite domes of Yosemite National Park. There’s also some good sized pegmatite dikes that criss-cross the area. We found some very large and attractive quartz and feldspar crystals poking around the meadows that surround Greyrock Mountain.
On a non-geology note, the trails winds through several different burn scars, apparently of different ages based on the amount of regrowth in different areas. Many of these burned areas are likely due to the High Park Fire of 2012, one of the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history which ravaged the lower sections of Poudre Canyon. There had apparently been a large windstorm here recently, as there were numerous downed trees, some dead snags but some still very much green and alive, strewn across the trail:
On the hike back down to the trailhead (on the Greyrock Meadows Trail), we were treated to a spectacular sunset over Poudre Canyon as well as views of the distant Mummy Range in Rocky Mountain National Park.
It is currently snowing so hard I can barely see across the street. Fortunately, I haven’t been able to say this very often this winter, and I strongly suspect it won’t even be true 10 minutes from now. After six winters in the Pacific Northwest, once again residing somewhere where “warm” and “dry” are not mutually exclusive weather conditions has been quite refreshing. The mild weather has made hiking and all the other outdoorsy things that are practically a prerequisite for obtaining a Colorado driver’s license quite enjoyable. I’ve written about some of my adventures up to Rocky Mountain National Park but have yet to share any photos of our more immediate surroundings here in Fort Collins.
Fort Collins itself, lying at the extreme western edge of the Great Plains, is…well…flat. The only sledding hill I’ve yet seen here is a pathetic 20 foot run down the side of a large pile of gravel in the corner of the college football stadium parking lot. (As you’ll notice though, there is very little snow in any of these photos, so this is sort of a moot point.) Immediately west of town though lie the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a beautiful landscape of ridges and valleys that mark the boundary between the plains and the Rockies.
Geologically speaking, the foothills are fascinating (though geologists find just about any landscape fascinating…heck even Iowa has one of the largest asteroid impact craters on Earth lurking just beneath its surface) because they represent where the Rocky Mountains pushed their way up through the crust. Prior to the uplift of the Rockies, this portion of Colorado was covered in a thick, continuous stack of colorful but more or less flat-lying sedimentary rock layers, much like one sees at the Grand Canyon today. Eventually, the Rockies thrust their way upward through the sedimentary rock, forcing the formerly flat layers to tilt toward the east. Over time, the softer sedimentary layers were (relatively) easily eroded away, forming long north/south trending valleys. Other layers were harder and resistant to erosion, forming dramatic sloping ridges known as cuestas and hogbacks that parallel the valleys.
The resulting pattern of alternating ridges and valleys is striking and has practical uses as well. In many places, streams flowing out of the mountains have been dammed at the point where they slice through the ridges, forming long, slender reservoirs that flood the valley bottoms. Horsetooth Reservoir, which provides some drinking water for Ft. Collins and irrigation water for the plains, is perhaps the best example.
Slightly further west, the landscape changes as the sedimentary layers give way to the igneous and metamorphic rocks that compose the bulk of the Rockies, forming famous local landmarks such as Horsetooth Rock (above) and Arthur’s Rock.
The plethora of city, state, and county parks that protect large swaths of the foothills are increasingly important as the cities below the foothills encroach on wildlife habitat. Mammals like deer, elk, bobcat, and bear are abundant in the foothills. As the cities below continue to push up against, and even into, the foothills, it’s not uncommon to read stories in the local newspaper about a moose, bear, or mountain lion wandering into town.
I grew up about 90 minutes away from Petrified Forest National Park and, aside for a quick lunch stop about 10 years ago, had never visited before last week. While this is nowhere near as inexcusable as living in Arizona for decades and never visiting the Grand Canyon (yes, such individuals exist…I’ve met many), it still seemed like a bit of an oversight on my part. Or it could simply be a reflection of the inordinate number of outdoor activities that exist in northern Arizona; even living in the area for 10+ years isn’t enough time to hit everything. Either way, after finally venturing into the Petrified Forest, I can emphatically say that it should be mentioned with the best that northern Arizona has to offer.
Located amongst the vast Painted Desert of northeastern Arizona, the main attraction of Petrified Forest is of course the petrified wood. The formation of petrified wood is initiated when downed trees are quickly buried by sediment. Once entombed in the sediment, the lack of oxygen prevents the logs from decaying as they normally would when exposed directly to the atmosphere. In this case, the logs (none of which remain standing, despite the name “Petrified Forest”) were likely brought here in massive logjams along an ancient river system that existed during the Triassic period. A combination of sediment from the river and ash from nearby volcanoes buried the logs, not to be seen again for more than 200 million years. During this time, as the logs became buried under an increasingly deep pile of overlying sediment, dissolved silica began to crystallize in the pore spaces of the wood as quartz, eventually replacing all of the organic material while maintaining the original shape and structure of the log.
Petrified wood is not particularly rare. Good examples abound in Yellowstone National Park, Washington state, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Alberta, New Zealand…the list goes on and on. What makes Petrified Forest National Park unique is the quantities found here. Due to the aforementioned Triassic log jams, large quantities of wood were concentrated in small areas. In a location known today as Jasper Forest (see photos below), movement was not possible without walking over a nearly uniform carpeting of small petrified wood fragments and frequently having to clamber over 2-3 foot diameter logs. Truly stunning!
Another unique aspect of Petrified Forest is the colorful canvas on which the wood is found. The wood is eroding out of a rock unit known as the Chinle Formation, which essentially consists of all of the river sediment and volcanic ash the buried the trees in the first place. More than 1000 feet thick in the park, the Chinle Formation is composed primarily of extremely soft mudstones, clays, and volcanic ash. Water is able to easily sculpt the soft rock into fantastically colored and oddly shaped badlands that make a spectacular backdrop for the logs.
Petrified Forest National Park faces an issue not encountered by most other national parks, namely, the wholesale theft of the very resource it was established to protect. For this reason, the park is only open during daylight hours (from 8-5 in the winter) to minimize opportunities for looting. It strike me as very sad that such measures are necessary. With a little geological perspective, it becomes clear how incredibly lucky we are to experience a landscape like Petrified Forest at this moment in time. So easily eroded is the Chinle Formation that in many locations, several inches of it are removed each year. This may not sound like much, but geologically speaking, that’s a veritable bullet train of erosion. While it took tens of millions of years for the Chinle to be deposited, it will be erased from our planet by the unceasing forces of weathering and erosion in a tiny fraction of that. The petrified logs, being comprised mostly of silica, are harder and will last a little longer, but are still brittle and will eventually be washed into the Little Colorado River and swept downstream along with the colorful Chinle badlands.
What all this means is that the colorful Painted Desert/Petrified Forest landscape we see today is one that is extremely temporary. While this is true of most landscapes we see on Earth today—our planet likes to re-build, re-arrange, re-shape, and remove constantly—the Painted Desert is even more ephemeral than most. While mountain ranges comprised of harder, erosion-resistant granite or quartzite (like most of the Rockies) can stand the test of time to some degree, the longevity of the Painted Desert, its soft sediments, and its brittle petrified wood is comparatively brief. Stealing this treasured natural resource only abbreviates our time with the Petrified Forest even more.
It’s no secret that I love mountains. It’s also not much of a secret that the San Juan Mountains of Colorado are my favorite mountains. I love the San Juans for a number of reasons. One of them is geology. Look at a map and its easy to lump the San Juans in with the rest of the Rockies, but geologically speaking, they’re a whole different ballgame. Formed not by uplift but by some of the largest and most violent volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history (think Yellowstone only MUCH, MUCH larger…), the San Juans have a personality all their own. They are tall (12 peaks above 14,000 and 314 above 13,000), large (more than 10,000 square miles, as opposed to the long but skinny ranges that dominate the rest of Colorado), and so steep that only three ski resorts exist here.
I also love the San Juans for the solitude they can offer. 5+ hours from major metropolitan areas (*cough*Denver*cough*), escaping the crowds here is much easier than in the rest of the state’s mountains (*cough*Aspen*cough*).
As of last weekend though, my number one reason to love the San Juans is that the San Juans contain Ice Lake, which might be the most beautiful location I’ve visited on Earth to date.
Ice Lake is a glacial tarn located at 12,300 feet not too far from the mining town of Silverton. Fortunately, it’s one of the few major destinations in the San Juans that you can’t get anywhere close to with a jeep, which drastically limits the number of people that you see and the number of engines that you hear. Instead, it is accessed via a steep 3.5 mile hike from a trailhead along South Mineral Creek. It’s been on my list of places to go for several years now and my girlfriend Michelle and I recently got a chance to spend a few days in the San Juans and make the short but steep trek up to the lake. Hiking in Colorado’s high mountains in the summertime can be challenging. Near daily vicious afternoon thunderstorms make it hard to spend any appreciable time above tree line. Despite the fact that a good chunk of this hike was above treeline, we didn’t hit the trail until a little after 8am but fortunately the weather gods cooperated on this day.
While the scenery along the trail is spectacular, all is forgotten once you catch your first glimpse of Ice Lake. One look at the brilliant neon blue water and you suddenly feel as if you’ve been hiking through a prison yard for the last few hours. I’ve never seen water so vividly colored; some of the hot springs in Yellowstone are the only things that come even remotely close. The color is caused by the presence of “rock flour” in the lake, extremely fine sediment left over from the days when large glaciers scoured out Ice Lake Basin and ground the fragile volcanic rocks into a powder. These sediment particles are so small that they remain suspended in the water, scattering blue light toward the eyes of every astounded hiker and backpacker that reaches the basin.
Unlike many of the other high alpine basins in the San Juans, Ice Lake Basin is HUGE! Covering nearing five square kilometers, the basin contains several other named and unnamed lakes as well as some of the most impressive wildflower fields I have ever seen. White, red, pink, and yellow varieties of paintbrush, elephant ears, asters, and columbines blanketed the basin. Wildflower season in the lower elevations has long past but up at 12,000 the show is just reaching it’s zenith!
Interestingly, the other lakes in the basin were not nearly as brilliantly colored, but rather a more drab blue-ish green that was nevertheless spectacular, especially when the wind calmed and the waters began to reflect the ring of peaks surrounding the basin. We lucked into a day where the thunderstorms had trouble developing and so we were able to spend 5-6 hours exploring the basin, crossing fields bursting with wildflowers, and relaxing by the lakes. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the mountain goats that often frequent such basins, but we had to settle for a handful of marmots and a trio of llamas which another party had used to pack their overnight gear into the basin.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Walking through the basin, I was reminded of Robin Williams’ famous quip about Glacier National Park: “If this isn’t God’s backyard, then he certainly lives nearby.” Apparently God has now purchased a summer home in the San Juan Mountains because the scenery here is truly second to none.
Chuckanut Drive, a.k.a. Washington State Route 11, is one of the premier attractions here on the extreme northwestern fringe of the U.S. “The Nut”, as I like to call it, winds for just over 21 miles between Bellingham and Burlington. Hemmed in by the Chuckanut Mountains to the east and numerous scenic bays, inlets, and islands on the west, it offers a stunning variety of scenery for such a short stretch of road. Chuckanut Drive has truly been a gift to me the last year and a half, because I can be cruising down it (well, as least what passes for “cruising” in a 16 year old Corolla…) and taking photos within 5 minutes of leaving my house. I’ve done this several times recently, now that the Sun is once again gracing us with its presence past 4pm.
Chuckanut Drive is chock full of destinations that make you feel further from civilization than you actually are, places that are perfect for occasions when time is in short supply. One of my favorite such spots is the beach walk at Chuckanut Bay. Fortunately for me, it also happens to be one of the closest, sitting just barely inside Bellingham city limits. Close enough for me to walk if I was feeling ambitious. Nearly inaccessible at high tide, once the water level drops a couple of feet, a few hundred yard stroll to the northwest shore of the bay puts you in the middle of spectacular and bizarre rock formations sculpted out of the Chuckanut Sandstone by freezing sea spray that accumulates along the margin of this sheltered cove. This is also a great place to see honeycomb weathering features along the shore, as is adjacent Teddy Bear Cove.
Chuckanut Drive is heaven for the geologically inclined for a couple of reasons. For one, the road itself is built on layers of weak sandstone that slope precariously towards the sea. When it rains, water seeps into the spaces between the layers, dramatically decreasing something called the coefficient of static friction, which is normally responsible for keeping the rock intact. In other words, the water essentially lubricates the surface between rock layers, causing causing large chunks of the hillside to frequently slough off, making Chuckanut Drive one of the most landslide prone highways in the state. Last winter, it seemed like the road was closed at least every few weeks in order to repair large gashes in the pavement caused by falling boulders.
Two, the sandstone exposed here, a rock unit known as the Chuckanut Formation, is chock full of fossilized ferns, palm fronds, gingko leaves, wood, and bark, relics from a time when the Pacific Northwest was just as wet as today, but a whole lot warmer. An exposure of this same rock unit an hour to the east even turned up a footprint of a giant Eocene flightless bird a few years back, which is now on display at Western Washington University.
A few miles further south of Chuckanut Bay is Larrabee State Park, the first state park in Washington, whose landscapes and marine life I’ve documented previously and continues to be a favorite spot to catch the sunset:
Heading south from Larrabee State Park, the road becomes increasingly curvy and narrow as it clings to the hillside passing oyster bars, cascading waterfalls, and smattering of million-dollar homes. (You never actually drive along the coast proper, that route is reserved for the Burlington Northern Railroad, but the views are even better as a result.) Keep your eyes on the road and wait for one of the plethora of pull-offs where you can take it all in without running the risk of driving off a cliff.
A short but steep hike from near the route’s southern end puts one at Samish Overlook, which offers unparalleled views of the San Juan Islands, the Skagit River Valley, Olympic Mountains, and even Mt. Rainier on a clear day. On days when the winds are right, this is a launching point for local paragliders. It’s also a cool place to go during a foggy spell; at nearly 1300 feet above sea level, the Overlook sits above the fog deck most days making for spectacular sunsets and less than spectacular dark and foggy hikes back to your car.
The last nine miles of the route angle away from the mountains and coast and traverse the flat lands and fields of the Skagit River Valley. But just a few miles west of the Drive, along Bayview-Edison Road, you’ll find the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve, which operates an excellent interpretive center with exhibits about the coastal ecosystems of the Puget Sound area and a small aquarium. This is also a great place to spot a number of the bald eagles that visit the Skagit River Valley and surrounding area each winter to feast upon dying salmon. Padilla Bay (actually an estuary) is so shallow that at low tide, mudflats extend for hundreds of yards away from the coast.
Eventually, Chuckanut Drive meets up with I-5 in Burlington, just a few miles north of the infamous I-5 bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River last year. From here it’s a quick 15-20 minutes drive back to Bellingham along the interstate. Or if you feel like braving that bridge, I hear there are a few good breweries in Mt. Vernon….